Marolt: Despite our abundance, there is hope | AspenTimes.com
Roger Marolt
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Marolt: Despite our abundance, there is hope

If it's true that wealth corrupts the soul, then "paradise" is Aspen's dark costume turned inside out. There's plenty of cash and blame to go around. I mean, no doubt money makes this place look nice, but how does it feel? If you walk down the street shaking your head and calming the willies, I'm telling you, there's something to it.

Granted, nobody cares what I think, but you might take note of what Michael Lewis wrote Jan. 2 in The New Republic. He gives plenty of evidence strongly suggesting that money makes us more selfish and dishonest or, at the very least, turns us into giant jerks. The anecdotal evidence is everywhere in our town; the academic studies are laid out in his piece, titled "What wealth does to your soul."

Here is what you need to know:

In a study overseen by professor Dacher Keltner and his colleague Paul Piff, of the University of California, Berkeley's psychology department, drivers of expensive cars observed at a four-way intersection were found to be four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers waiting there than were the drivers of cheaper cars. When observed at crosswalks, the drivers of the cheaper cars yielded to pedestrians every single time during the test, while the expensive-car drivers ignored the pedestrians' right of way 46.2 percent of the time.

The same UC Berkeley team ran a cross section of test subjects through some decoy exercises at its laboratory office and then observed them after they finished and exited through the reception room. As they passed, a jar in the room was clearly labeled "Candy for the children." It was found that the richer the person was, the more likely they would reach into the jar and help themselves to the sweets.

Another test was conducted where there was a built-in incentive to lie that would result in winning a contest and a $50 prize. Now, what's 50 bucks to a rich person? Nothing, right? Well, apparently, it's worth more than their integrity. As it turned out, the wealthy participants were far more likely to lie for the chance at winning 50 bucks than the poorer people who participated.

There's more. A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed more than 43,000 Americans and discovered that the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor by a wide margin.

A coalition of nonprofit organizations' research revealed that people with annual incomes below $25,000 gave an average of 4.2 percent of their earnings to charity. People earning more than $150,000 per year gave just 2.7 percent.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, a neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell conducted research and published a report showing that the accumulation of wealth quiets nerve activity in a section of the brain associated with empathy. Poor people's brains exhibited far more activity when shown pictures of children suffering from cancer than did wealthy people's.

Of course, none of this proves cause and effect; it only tilts the scale in that direction. People who are cold, callous and oblivious to the human condition of others might be predisposed to making lots of money, or money actually might be the corrupting factor shaping otherwise caring, comforting and kind people's personalities.

Fortunately, nailing down cause and effect is not the point here. As Lewis said, there are volumes upon volumes of work out there proving that, beyond a level where basic comforts are achieved, more money does not make people happier. It's hard to argue. If rich people were truly happier, they probably wouldn't act in arrogant and self-centered ways more often than others.

Ironically, it would be great news if it turned out that money actually does corrupt people. That would mean it is due to nurture and not nature. That would mean people can change if cautioned about money's detrimental effect on our psyches!

Now, I know you are thinking: "How is he going to bring this around and tie it into the Hike for Hope charity uphill event happening early Sunday morning at Buttermilk, like he always does in his column the Friday before?"

Well, here goes: Precisely because we are an exorbitantly wealthy community, we need to protect ourselves from money's degrading effects. Because we are inordinately awash in surplus, we should give back way more than people in other places do. While accumulating more is proven not to make us happier, giving to others certainly does. Besides, an uphill charity race is one place where it is OK to weasel your way to the front while at the same time putting others' needs first. Hey, you have to start somewhere.

Roger Marolt believes the place to start is at the base of Buttermilk at 7 a.m. on Sunday. Contact him at roger@maroltllp.com.